I Scared the Wits Out of Prince Charles
The day I accidentally frightened the future King of England
Right off the bat I need to tell you that I didn’t mean to scare Prince Charles. I really didn’t. And perhaps I was a little too eager in trying to do my job. But it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
Okay, maybe I should start from the beginning.
The year was 1977, and a small television station in San Angelo, Texas had recently hired me as a news anchor/reporter/photographer. (You tend to do it all in a small operation.) This was long before I got into weather, and I was only a few months out of college and this was my first job in TV. After only three months at the station, my news director came to me one day and asked, “Would you like to cover Prince Charles's Texas visit?”
“Sure,” I told him. I knew it meant a road trip.
“He’ll be in San Antonio as part of his first official U.S. tour," the boss explained, "and I’d like for you to shoot camera for our new reporter Jeri. I've already talked to her."
Soon the day came. Jeri and I jumped into my Dodge Aspen for the three-hour drive to the Mission City. The Prince’s first stop was to be the Alamo, and we considered ourselves lucky to find a parking place within a half-mile of the historic landmark. Our film camera with its long lens and Mickey-Mouse-ears-shaped film canister was heavy, but the day was young and so was I. We soon reached the press area, a small roped-off space in front of the Alamo. The Prince would make no public remarks, so film of him greeting the crowds would be the bulk of our story.
I looked around at the TV station call letters on all the other cameras. There were representatives not only from San Antonio, but also from Dallas and Houston, as well as the three major networks and some foreign news outlets. As I recognized a couple of correspondents from the network news, I had a strange sensation. Here we were, two novices from one of the smallest television markets in the country, shoulder-to-shoulder with these veteran news crews. For a moment I sensed we were their equals.
But the moment quickly passed. I noticed a couple of their videotape shooters snickering at our archaic film camera. A further reminder that we were out of their league was the fact that they had already claimed every inch of space at the edges of the roped-off area, and Jeri and I were relegated to a second tier behind the others. My 5’10” height could not rise above the cameras in front of us, and Jeri’s 5’1” frame was certainly no help.
I sighed. “There is no way I’m going to get a decent shot from here,” I told her.
Jeri looked around and spied a small opening between two cameras. “Maybe you can zoom in and shoot through there,” she said, pointing to the just-wide-enough space.
"That might work,” I agreed, and held my ground, zooming in on the area where the Prince was to make his appearance. It would have to do. While we waited, I sprayed off a few shots of the Alamo and the myriad of royalty fans who had gathered.
Then suddenly a roar erupted among the crowd, as a number of suited dignitaries entered the plaza. I focused my camera through the small opening we had found.
A few seconds later I saw him through my viewfinder. The 28-year old Prince of Wales looked dapper in a dark suit as he waved to the crowd. Through my lens I saw him smile, but even so, the Prince seemed timid and uncomfortable with the adulation. His gait was halting and uncertain. But the crowd didn’t notice. They adored him.
I pushed the button to roll the film, remembering that it took two seconds for the camera to get up to speed. I began to count silently, but shortly after I reached “one-thousand two,” a reporter stepped between me and my small window-of-filming-opportunity, blocking my view of the man-who-would-be-King.
“Aaagh!” I cried in frustration, and Jeri, who was as excited to see the British monarch as any other onlooker, turned to me. Her broad smile turned to concern when she saw I had stopped filming.
“What’s wrong?” she shouted over the crowd.
“Let’s try a different place,” I yelled back, and took off down behind the row of cameras, all of which were getting the unobstructed footage they needed. I ran to the end of the roped-off area, put the camera on my shoulder, hit the start button and prayed.
The Prince had stopped to shake a few hands and I saw my chance. Zooming in, I caught a glimpse of his face as he turned to smile at another group of fans. That’s a good shot, I thought. But it was only one. I was going to need a lot more.
I sensed movement to my side, and in my peripheral vision I saw a stampede of photographers headed in my direction. Suddenly the film camera almost came off my shoulder as a large network photographer nudged into my space. I sensed I was losing ground in my attempt to protect my small patch of real estate when I heard Jeri’s usually quiet voice bellow, “Move it, buster!” and she stood between me and the intruder. The surprised network cameraman looked down at the petite woman glaring up at him and backed off.
“Thanks,” I gratefully gulped as I tried to refocus onto the now departing Prince Charles, watching his back as he and his entourage headed for their next stop, the San Antonio River Walk. We followed, along with the dozens of others wearing press badges, knowing that l had yet to get more than a few seconds of useable film for our story.
Some of the TV stations had multiple crews, and several cameras were already waiting at the river, recording Prince Charlie’s movements along the promenade. I pushed through the throngs of spectators, past hotels and restaurants filled with people hanging out of windows and waving. Not being able to get a clear shot of the Prince, I instead took a couple of quick shots of the excited crowd. Finally I broke through the mass of humanity just as the young Prince was boarding an open-air boat. I managed to get a shot of him waving as his boat motored away down the river.
Jeri caught up to me and asked, “How’s it going?”
“Not that great,” I confessed. “I got a few more seconds just now, but nothing close-up; hardly anything where I can see his face. The spectators are getting a better view than me.”
Jeri pulled a map out of her pocket. “Then let’s be spectators,” she suggested. “Here’s the Prince’s route through the city. How about we try to get ahead of him?”
“It’s worth a try,” I admitted, and we headed off toward one of the final locations on his itinerary.
We came to a long street lined with people already staking out their spots to wait for Prince Charles, all hoping to get a handshake or a hello as he walked by. There were a few other news photographers in the area, and I saw police officers push them back behind the observers, explaining that this part of the tour was for the fans and not for the news media.
This doesn’t look good,” Jeri said to me.
“Let’s just try to blend in,” I answered, and I let the film camera fall inconspicuously to my side.
The police ignored us. We waited.
Finally the young Prince came around the corner and into view. To my dismay, he was working the other side of the street, leaving the disappointed folks on my side to watch helplessly. I thought about trying to cross the street ahead of him, but I knew a police officer would too easily spot my camera and I’d lose any hope of getting the needed shots. Then suddenly, to my amazement and profound joy, Prince Charles turned and walked toward us. The people standing around me suddenly came alive with anticipation, knowing they were in line to get a handshake and an up-close and personal view. I kept my camera down and out of sight. Patience, Nick, I told myself.
Soon, the Prince was within 30 feet, then 20 feet. Still I waited. Knowing this would be my best and probably last opportunity for the “money shot,” I took my time. As Prince Charles continued to greet the people ahead of us, I reached down to the camera and pushed the start button to allow the film to get up to speed. The future King was ten feet away, then five. Now! I said to myself, and quickly pulled the camera up onto my shoulder, its lens coming within a couple of dozen inches from His Royal Highness’s famous nose.
The startled Prince stopped in his tracks. Then, open-mouthed in stunned surprise, he did a quick backwards skip, one leg over the other, almost tripping as he trotted to the other side of the street.
I was embarrassed that I had caused him to stumble, but just the same I continued to roll film, filling my viewfinder with his frightened form, recording the moment for that evening’s newscast. For another half minute, I continued to take more unobstructed footage of the Prince shaking hands with other lucky fans who were elated that Charles had moved once again to their side of the street.
The people on my side of the street, however, were suddenly in a totally different frame of mind. Next to me I heard someone shout, “You jerk!”
Someone else yelled, “He was so close!”
“He was just about to shake my hand!” echoed another.
Then Jeri’s voice sounded in my ear. “Nick, we’d better go.” I turned the camera off and looked around. Everyone standing around us, who seconds ago were emanating delight and bliss, were now red-faced and livid, their entire righteous wrath directed toward me. A police officer was moving in our direction. Once again I let the camera fall to my side, and Jeri and I slithered away from the angry onlookers, all staring daggers at the kid with the camera who had just ruined their day.
That incident is seared in my memory, but it was not my only encounter with Prince Charles. Nine years later I faced him again when he was accompanied this time by his incredibly popular wife, Princess Diana. I was a television reporter in Seattle and the royal couple had come to Victoria, British Columbia, the first stop on their trip to officially open Expo ’86, the Vancouver world’s fair. The Prince, now older, more experienced and much more relaxed, casually left his wife’s side and sauntered up to the roped-off press area to chat informally with the reporters gathered there.
I was also older, more experienced and more relaxed. This time I had a spot in front just behind the rope, and eventually the Prince walked closer and nodded a hello in my direction. I nodded a hello in return.
For a split second I thought I saw his expression change. Maybe it was just my imagination, because the difference in his demeanor was fleeting and almost imperceptible. Just the same, something was suddenly different. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but seconds later the Prince hastily wrapped up his stroll to meet the press, said a terse “goodbye,” and then turned around and quickly walked away.
Had I triggered a troubling flashback? Did he remember that day in Texas? I don’t know, but I promise that I didn’t mean to scare him all those years ago. Honest I didn’t.
© Nick Walker 2018
What about you? Have you ever encountered the royal or the famous? What was your meeting like? Please leave a comment below.